Mallory came skipping back down the stairs, whistling a merry tune. “Right, let’s go look around,” he said, as though he’d arranged this with them.
“Look around where?” asked Fanny. They came out of Nic’s room, a bit wary of the sudden change in Mallory’s demeanour.
“The campus of course. You’ll need to know where everything is. I won’t always be here to tell you, you know?”
They left their new home and followed Mallory back out. The sun was shining brightly and it was still warm even though summer was officially over. The sounds of excited children wafted on the mild breeze.
“We’ll do a quick tour,” said Mallory, “and then we’ll have lunch at the cafeteria. That should be an eye-opening experience.” He chuckled to himself.
Nic already knew the layout of the campus. He had found numerous maps in the Librarium and had copied them down in his notebook, which had helped commit them to memory. They were quite old maps, but the school probably hadn’t changed very much in the last few hundred years. He was happy to get a guided tour. Seeing it in person was quite different to looking at shapes on a piece of paper.
“Over there is the main building for the school.” Malory pointed at the largest building which was set back from the rest. “You can ignore it, only the regular students use it and we aren’t regular students.”
“It’s a very impressive structure,” said Davo, unable to hide his admiration for the many spires and turrets. “Must be quite a sight inside.”
“Don’t even think about it,” said Mallory. “You won’t be welcome in there. This building here, this is where first year upperclass students have most of their classes. As you can see, it’s not very far from our digs, so you can get there and back without disturbing the rest of the school. Which is how they like it.”
The building had the same antiquated look to it as the rest. Large and imposing, and even a little sinister. Gargoyles glared down from the walls and roof like they were considering jumping down.
“What about that building?” said Nic, pointing at a tower that was set to one side, rising from the middle of a group of trees. It hadn’t been on any of the maps he’d seen.
“Oh,” said Mallory. “Yes. You want to stay away from the Pagoda. It’s not very safe.”
The Pagoda was square with multiple eaves separating its tiers. It was quite narrow and had no windows.
They all stopped to look at the strange structure.
“Why is it unsafe?” asked Fanny. “Will it fall down?”
“No,” said Mallory. “Probably not. It’s Tenner’s pet project. You probably don’t know who that is, do you? He teaches arcanum.”
Arcanum was one of those subjects not covered by most schools. It was the history of magic—how it was discovered, who the greatest practitioners were, the effects on society over the centuries. It was considered mostly useless and a lot of it barely credible. Records were sketchy at best and the majority of what was known was anecdotal.
“That’s what he teaches to the first years,” continued Mallory. “Second years, he teaches demonology. That’s his true passion. Not teaching it—he hates teaching almost as much as he hates students—he’s trying to actually summon demons. That’s what the Pagoda’s for. It’s a giant antenna sending out signals to the other side, wherever that is. Sending out invitations, I guess.”
“You can’t be serious,” said Davo. “He’s made contact with demons?”
“Oh, no,” said Mallory. “Of course not. No one’s been able to do that for a thousand years, at least. And even then, who knows if they really did it? Tenner’s obsessed with it, though. He only took up the post here because they promised to fund his research and give him this thing. No one knows what he does in there, but I wouldn’t hang around it at night. You hear some pretty weird sound coming from in there. Mainly screaming.”
Nic looked up and down the Pagoda like he might spot some stray crackle of eldritch light. Magic was so rare and kept away from the public that it was very rare to see something so heavily imbued with it. Even if, as in this case, it didn’t actually work.
They spent the next hour wandering from building to building with Mallory explaining what they were used for, loudly expounding on which should be avoided and which they wouldn’t be allowed in. He also added his thoughts on the faculty and students, but kept most of that a lot quieter.
Around them, students ran around, apparently on their way to start of term events and gathering. To which the Also-Rans were not invited. None of them paid the slightest attention to the group of four being led around with wide eyes and heads constantly moving around to take in the sights.
They ended up in a long, low-ceilinged building with lots of tables and chairs. There were many such buildings on campus, Mallory explained, and this one was specifically for the upperclasses. Breakfast, lunch and supper were provided at specific times, and if you were late, then you went without.
They took their trays and walked along the line, no different to any other school cafeteria. There were only a few other students eating, but Mallory led them to a table in a far corner away from the rest.
“Usually it’s a lot busier than this, but first day back and everyone’s still shaking hands and slapping each other on the back.” He spoke with such bitterness Nic was tempted to put some sugar in his water.
“This stuff is barely edible,” said Davo, putting a large forkful of overcooked carrots into his mouth. “And have you noticed how similar the portions are?”
Nic looked from one plate to the next. They did all look remarkably the same. Not just the same items, but the same amounts.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we all had exactly the same number of peas,” said Davo, poking around his plate.
“Yes,” said Mallory. “The kitchen workers are the only ones who treat everyone equally in this school. Once you’ve eaten here long enough, you’ll probably wish they didn’t. There’s a tuck shop behind the library, I’ll show you on the way back.”
They returned to their rooms after a long walk with Mallory constantly pointing out each beautiful building and all the flaws of the people within. The old man working in the tuck shop, which sold mostly snacks and sweets, was the only one to get a positive review. He didn’t seem any more friendly than anyone else, making a small grunting sound as he took their money.
Mallory instantly disappeared up the stairs when they returned to the cottage and Davo let out a sigh of relief.
“That guy is exhausting. If he worked in one of my father’s stores, he’d have been fired long ago.”
“He is a bit of a downer,” said Fanny. “And he’s the one who made it through the first year. Imagine what the others were like!”
“Can’t have been worse than Old Misery Guts.” Davo shook his head. “Well, I’m not going to end up like that, I guarantee you. What happened to the girl?”
Nic looked around. Simole was nowhere to be seen.
“She went in her room,” said Fanny, indicating the door behind him.
“Amazing,” said Davo. “I didn’t even hear the door close. She’s like a ghost.”
It was true, she seemed to be able to disappear even when she was standing right next to you.
“The luggage still hasn’t turned up, then,” said Davo. “I suppose I’ll take a nap. That pudding really landed with a thump.” He patted his stomach and went into his room. Nic and Fanny exchanged nods and did the same.
The room was no more interesting than the last time he’d been in there and Nic quickly became bored. He wasn’t one for naps and for once in his life he didn’t have any work to do. He stepped back outside to find the hallway empty. There was a tapping noise coming from upstairs that didn’t bear investigating. Nic walked out of the cottage and headed across the campus. There was one type of place he was never bored in, and there happened to be one not very far away.
The school library was on the opposite side of the school grounds but compared to the distances he usually had to travel, it was a pleasant stroll and no great inconvenience. He enjoyed exploring this alien realm with its odd architecture and ancient traditions. Structured and orderly with a plethora of rules and regulations which, rather than being restrictive, only made it much easier to understand the underlying principles that governed this place. Once you understood something, it became a simple matter to manipulate them.
The grounds were a lot quieter now. Most of the students had greeted each other and gone inside to unpack and settle in. He casually peered into windows as he walked by, catching glimpses of fellow students, one student in particular always on his mind.
The library was a grand affair. Much larger than the one in Hammond. He trotted up the stone steps and paused to glance at the stone statues standing either side of the entrance. Something with wings he couldn’t identify. If it was based on a real creature, he’d never seen it in a book, and he’d read a lot of books.
Mallory had pointed out the library but hadn’t bothered taking them inside. His scathing comments about the staff came as no surprise to anyone. Nic wasn’t worried, though. He was used to the judgmental glare of a disapproving librarian, and considered himself immune.
The moment he stepped inside, he was struck with awe. He had been in many libraries in his life, but none, not even the Librarium, had made his heart flutter like this.
The circular building’s walls were lined with books, all the way up with balconies splitting them into several floors. Their coloured spines formed swirling patterns as though an artist had carefully placed them to create a glorious mural. It almost felt like the books were moving, ebbing and flowing like waves.
There was no sound and no people that he could see, but Nic was a veteran of too many libraries to be fooled. There was always someone around, waiting to pierce you with a questioning look. He had no idea if he was allowed in here now. He might need to be signed up for a library card, or given an induction course. He had encountered many rules and regulations in his time, all of them pointless, most of them circumventable.
Nic quickly slipped away from the entrance and down a shadowy gap between two tall shelves that curved in perfect alignment with one another. He ran his eyes over the books, making mental notes of ones he would check on his next circuit; it would take a long time to fully explore this new world.
Heavy wooden shelves, square and solid, immovable as castle walls, taller than he could reach, stretched out in every direction, creating passages and corridors; a maze where every route was the correct one. He reverently moved through them.
There were books here he had never seen before, some he’d never even heard of. His fingers brushed along the spines as he silently moved from one shelf to the next, quickly jumping between gaps so as not to be seen.
As he reached about a quarter of the way around, he was able to see the middle of the library where there was an open area. There was a large circular desk behind which stood an austere-looking woman who could have been elderly with a youthful face, or young with a stooped gait. She moved slowly from one side to the other moving books for no apparent reason.
Around the large desk were many smaller tables with chairs. These were all empty, except for one. Five students were crowded together, leaning over the books open on the table. They were too far for Nic to hear what they were saying, or more likely whispering, but he could tell they were discussing something seriously.
It amazed him that they would already be at work when term hadn’t even begun, but maybe this was the Ransom way. These might be the elite students who were destined to one day be leaders of the kingdom. Perhaps even, like Fanny, striving to join the Royal College and become mages.
Despite the obvious divides created by background and wealth, the Royal College was the one place parents had no influence and no amount of money was enough to secure a place. He wasn’t interested in becoming a mage himself, but it was admirable to see people willing to work hard to get what they wanted.
Nic froze. One of the girls had stood up and grabbed a book from in front of another student, causing a little good-humoured complaining. The girl who had taken the book had long, dark hair that swished away from her face, and in that instance Nic recognised her.
It was her. There was no doubt in his mind. It had been more than five years and she was completely different, yet completely the same.
Nic ducked back out of sight. Peering from behind the corner of the shelf, he watched again.
Of course, he knew he would bump into her at some point; it was inevitable. But he wasn’t prepared, not now. She was surrounded by friends, happy. She didn’t miss him, probably didn’t even remember him. What was he even doing here?
His heart was thumping in his chest and he could feel the sweat forming on his brow. He definitely couldn’t allow her to see him like this. He turned and bumped into a tall woman.
“Can I help you?” asked the stern librarian, peering down at him. She was younger than he’d thought.
They were magical creatures, librarians. At least, to Nic they were. All-powerful in their domain, exuding authority and order, possessing knowledge far beyond that of mere mortals. They’d heard of it, had seen it, knew where it was. If it existed, they could get you a copy. And they had the uncanny ability to appear out of thin air.
“Erm, no, I was just…” He stepped past her and headed towards the exit. There was a polite cough to attract his attention but he ignored it.
Had Dizzy seen him? Did she even know he had made it into the school? Had she seen his name in the paper just below hers? No, no. There was no way. He left the library and ran down the steps and continued running all the way to his room.
When he got back to the cottage, out of breath and his heart beating even more wildly, Fanny and Davo were sitting in the space between their rooms in front of a fire. There had been a fireplace hidden behind a covering and they had a collection of twigs on the floor which they had clearly gathered from outside.
“Pretty neat, huh?” said Fanny.
“We were bored,” explained Davo. “Where have you been?”
“I went to the library,” said Nic, still breathing hard.
“And why are you out of breath?”
“It’s a big library,” said Nic. He sat down on the floor with them. “Nice fire. Are you sure the chimney works? I didn’t see any smoke on the way here.”
Davo threw some more twigs on the fire. They crackled and smoke blew into their faces.
“Might need unblocking,” said Fanny, coughing.
“There was a delivery while you were out,” said Davo. “Our luggage. Along with textbooks and a lesson plan. We’re in all the same classes, which should make things easier.”
There was a thundering of footsteps down the stairs and Mallory came charging down, coughing. “What are you doing?” he screamed. “That isn’t a fireplace. Put it out before you burn the house down.”
They quickly put the fire out. The chimney turned out to be a dumb-waiter no longer in use and they had flooded the upper floor in smoke. Windows were opened and apologies made.
After they had finished cleaning up the mess, Nic went to his room. His trunk was on the floor. On his small desk was a pile of books and a piece of paper telling him which lessons he had each day and in which classroom.
He recognised the textbooks, although they were all out of date and falling apart. Also-Rans were on a full scholarship with all their academic need provided by the school. But buying new editions every year would be a waste of money. A very small waste of money, but Nic was beginning to realise the school liked to cut corners where it could.
Davo could certainly afford his own books. He probably had the newest editions bound in rich leather and embossed in gold leaf. The others didn’t appear to be from impoverished backgrounds, either.
He picked up a book—Margoly’s Western Almanac—and flicked through it. Pages fell out. Fortunately, Nic didn’t need to upgrade any of them to the newest versions. He’d already learned all he could from such basic texts.
He woke up early the next morning and dressed in the school uniform which consisted of black trousers and jacket, a white shirt and a strange scarf he was supposed to wear around his neck like a tie. It was uncomfortable, but he hoped it would make him and the other Also-Rans stick out a little less.
The three boys stood looking at each other in their stiff new clothes and burst out laughing.
They knocked on Simole’s door but there was no answer.
“I think she’s gone already,” said Fanny.
They went as a group to the cafeteria for breakfast. It was much more crowded this time, awash in a sea of chatter. One table was completely empty.
“There’s no reason we have to sit there,” said Davo. “There’s plenty of room over there. And there.”
They hesitated, looked at each other, and then went to the small table they’d sat at with Mallory the day before. They were ignored by the rest of the students.
The first class of the day was Military History. They arrived in the building with plenty of time to spare but finding the classroom took a while, mainly because none of them felt confident asking for directions, and no one offered.
When they did find it on the second floor of the building, the other students were seated, including Simole, and the only empty desks were right at the back. Nic quickly looked around the class to see if she was here, but she wasn’t, much to his relief. They took their seats and waited for the teacher.
Mr Varity was a short, stout man. He had large grey sideburns and a ring of white hair around his bald head.
“Here we are, then,” he said as he unpacked a small case and placed a sheaf of papers on his desk. “Now, I don’t want any of you to think this year will be anything like last year. That was a mere skirmish, this is the real war.”
There was some tittering which soon stopped when Mr Varity glared at the offenders.
“I fully expect half of you to fail the end of year exams, but by the end of the school year, you will be excessively proficient, well, most of you. So, let’s...” He paused. “What is that hand doing? Are you stretching?”
“I have a question, sir,” said Nic, his hand raised over his head.
“A question? A question? I haven’t even started yet. What could you possibly have to ask? What’s your name?”
“Tutt, sir. Nicolav Tutt.”
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Do you have a brother?”
“No, sir,” said Nic. “I’m an only child.”
“Well, what is it? And stand up when you’re speaking.”
Nic got to his feet and felt the eyes of the whole class on him. Especially Davo’s.
“It’s just that my old school’s curriculum didn’t cover quite as much as this school’s.”
“Ah, I see. You’re a… transfer student. Well, then I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s only to be expected.” There was more tittering, this time left unchecked. “What would you like me to do about it?”
“I was hoping for extra lessons outside of school hours,” said Nic.
“And why on earth would I do that?”
“Because the school rules say you have to.”
There was a long moment of silence before Mr Varity erupted. “What on earth are you talking about? What rules?”
“Well,” said Nic calmly, but doing his best not to be provocative, “it says, since Also-Ra... I mean, since transfer students won’t have had the same level of instruction as Ransom students, teachers will make themselves available for private tuition. I think it’s section 3, paragraph—”
“Never mind that,” Mr Varity blasted at him. “I don’t have time to give you private tuition. I’m hard pressed enough with my regular duties. Rule or no rule, it’s impossible.”
“Yes, sir,” said Nic. “Could I have that in writing.”
Mr Varity’s bald head had grown an alarming shade of red. “In writing? What for?”
“I’m required to provide proof that my request has been rejected when I go to the school governors, sir.” Nic had spent a lot of time going over the school rules and byelaws. He’d found many useful bits of information in there.
Mr Varity was very still, except for his left eye which was twitching. “I see. Well, let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Nic sat down.
There were a few moments of confusion as the other students tried to process what had just happened, but eventually things settled down and Mr Varity began the class.
Nic found the lesson pretty straightforward. It was all stuff he had already studied on his own. As well as finding the Ransom school rules, he had also found the curriculum and had made sure to be up to date on all his subjects.
The next class was Advanced Calculations. The teacher was Mrs Finleaves and after she had gone over what they would be covering this term, she too was faced with Nic’s raised hand.
Her response was similar to Varity’s, although not quite so vociferous.
At lunch time, the three boys returned to the cafeteria, Simole disappearing again as soon as the bell rang.
This time, they were not ignored as they took their places at the small table. Many eyes were looking in their direction.
“This wasn’t the plan we agreed to, you know?” said Davo. “Hardly keeping a low profile, is it?”
“If we can get some additional tuition, I’m not going to say no,” said Fanny. “Have you had a look in your Ad Calc textbook? Nothing past chapter three makes any sense to me.”
“Well, of course,” said Davo, “we are obviously at a disadvantage here, and the help would be very welcome. But still, you’re making a bit of a stink, Nic.”
“I’m just asking them to follow their own rules,” said Nic. “Is that unreasonable?”
Mallory appeared with a tray of food and sat with them. “Did something happen? Why’s everyone staring at you guys? Took nearly a month before anyone even noticed us.”
They all shrugged their shoulders and kept eating.
Things didn’t continue the same after lunch. When Nic raised his hand in Law and Justice, Mr Brittum informed him he’d been made aware of Nic’s request for additional tutoring and he would be informed about when such classes would take place by the school office. Apparently the teachers had discussed it over lunch and perhaps checked the rule book. Nic made no further requests.
When they returned to the cottage, there were notes slipped under each of their doors with details of their extra classes. Some were before school began, others after it finished. Economic Analysis was on Saturdays.
“I imagine they’re very unhappy with you,” said Davo.
“Who is?” asked Nic.
“Everyone,” said Fanny. “How long do you think it’ll take for us to catch up to the other students?”
Nic shrugged. “I’m already caught up.”
“In which subjects?” asked Davo.
“All of them.”
“You mean you don’t need any of these remedial classes?” Davo was flummoxed. “Then why did you insist on them?”
“Because it’s hard to ask in depth questions during class. The teachers are always so busy. I thought it would be easier if we had smaller, one to one sessions with them. There’s no point trying to keep up with the other students, they’ve got too much of an advantage and everything’s geared towards the pace they’re comfortable with. I just think it would be a lot easier to not get caught up in all that, and get as far ahead of them as possible.”